Friday, 14 May 2010

Cornelius Ryan - The reporter who time forgot!

As part of the continuing preparations for moving house, I opened another battered cardboard box to see what was inside. I found a collection of research notes/notebooks that I had purchased for a few pounds at an antiques fair. They had been compiled by the British military historian Alexander McKee (1918-1992). According to Wikipaedia, he served in the Army during the Second World War and wrote articles for Army newspapers and became a writer/producer for the British Forces Network [military radio overseas]. His notable books include The Race for Rhine Bridges, Strike from the Sky, Caen: The Anvil of Victory and Dresden 1945: The Devils Tinderbox. An amateur diver, he became famous for his discovery of King Henry VIII's flagship Mary Rose for which he was awarded the OBE.

So, why do I mention this lucky find? Well, I was reading the Guardian newspaper's online media section and saw a reference to a memoir on Cornelius Ryan entitled The Reporter who Time forgot. Ryan wrote the bestselling book about D-Day - The Longest Day - and this four page memoir tells something of the researches he made for his books - how he did it and how much he expended on books on the subject. Quite remarkable, and for most people unaffordable. It is well worth taking the time to read this piece which appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Read the blog that mentioned it as a taster here and the article itself here. I'd be interested in your comments on Ryan's research methods. Quite fascinating.

The photo by the way is of medics attending to wounded in the shelter of a Churchill AVRE from 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers. It was taken on Sword Beach on D-Day 6 June 1944 by Sgt Jimmy Mapham of the Army Film and Photographic Unit. My uncle was a crewman on one of these - could it be his vehicle? I don't know. He had a number of lucky escapes. In trialling amphibious tanks before D-Day, his was one of two to be driven into a deep lake. The first tank sank - all died and his was stopped on the edge of the water. On D-Day, coming off the beach, his was the second AVRE. The first sank into a culvert and his drove over it to safety. Later, in preparing for crossing a river in Germany, he was part of the crew of a Buffalo troop carrier. The first vehicle was swept away in the current and the crew and troops it was carrying were drowned. His vehicle reached the opposite bank and . . . safety! This could well explain why he rarely slept at night until the end of his days.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

News Photography - Some thoughts on the Subject Part 1 - an update

You will remember one of my early posts News Photography - Some thoughts on the Subject Part 1 when I talked about finding an abandoned doll in the ruins of a block of flats in Kuwait City. I talked about finding it in a dark corner of the building near to the lift shaft and how I moved the doll to some well-lit rubble to enable me to take an emotive photograph . . . before placing it back where I found it. Today, I found the photograph and, as promised, publish it here.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Photographs - Taking or Making History?

On the odd occasion in the past when I have taken a 'difficult' photograph [not necessarily subsequently published], I did it for a particular reason. In the main, I don't feel a particular photograph should not be taken, although I do have some views on ethics! My personal view is that it is important to take a photograph for historical reasons - preserve that moment of history and then decide afterwards whether it should be published or archived for the future. That is, I know, a really simplistic view, but I acknowledge there are lots of other factors to consider. I would be interested to hear some of your views on these.

A few years ago, while researching the subject of war correspondents, I came across the story of an American female war photographer who, in the 1970s, trod on a mine. There is no soft way of putting this across, but her lower body was torn apart - literally shredded into nothing. What absolutely shocked me about this was the fact that she remained conscious for quite some time before she died. One of her first actions was to reach up to those around her and say: "Quick! Take my camera and photograph me . . .! Now, why did she do this? I can only surmise that she felt she was making history and wanted that history preserved. Remarkable!

Perhaps the latter tale remained in my subconscious? In the 1990s, I found myself on assignment in Gornji Vakuf in Bosnia. Two factions had fought over the town for months, but a fragile ceasefire had been declared. One of the safeguards negotiated by the United Nations force was for a telephone line to be laid across no man's land so that each side could negotiate with each other should tensions reach boiling point. It was to prove very effective.

A liaison officer offered to take me and a photographer into no man's land to see the connection between the two sides' wires. Quite insanely, I agreed. We were asked to step carefully as the narrow path was littered with anti-personnel mines - some buried out of sight. I can remember saying very firmly to the photographer: "If I am blown up by a mine, alive but injured or dead, you must take my photograph!" I was determined that my own personal moment of history, should it happen, should be preserved. I can remember getting a funny look from our escort.

In the event, we got about 30 feet down the track and the photographer decided he didn't want to go any further. He stuffed the camera in my hands, said, words to the effect of, "If you want the photograph, you can take it!" and rushed back down the track. I can remember thinking, "you idiot! You have put us all at risk by dashing through the minefield without looking where he was going!" But I don't blame him for not completing this particular assignment . . .

The photograph I took was of two different types of telephone cable with the bare wires held together by a copper clamp. The liaison officer held it in his open palm as I photographed the join. Not the world's most amazing photograph, but a small piece of history in its own right!

It was published and is archived. Sometimes it is the little things that count - a subject I will return to in a future post. In the meantime, I really would appreciate hearing what you have to say about the subject of capturing a moment of history; the actions of the dying photographer to ensure her death was recorded; and the significance of recording the little things like the joining of the wires! The discussion floor is open. Please join in!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

News Photography - Some thoughts on the subject Part 2

In a previous post - Getting Involved - Owen Phillips of the Magic Lantern Show blog raised a question about the behaviour of the photographers at the scene of Princess Diana's fatal car crash. In that post, I had been discussing the behaviour of the press at the Aberfan Disaster and how they dropped their notebooks and went to help, something that is very rare today.

While most people are quick to condemn the actions of the paparazzi who photographed her dying moments, there are a number of things to think about. These weren't staff photographers working for a particular newspaper or magazine. They were freelances whose income comes from getting the shot and selling the photographs to the highest bidder. Being in that line of work leaves the individual freelance photographers with little choice but to take the photographs, especially as no freelance present would agree to one taking the photographs and sharing (pooling) them with the others, while the others would try and help the occupants of the car.

I'd like to make it quite clear that I am not condoning what the photographers chose to do. I am just giving a few thoughts on it and leave it for readers to think about themselves. I'd be interested to here what others think so post your comments here. Thank you.

Monday, 11 May 2009

News Photography - Some thoughts on the subject Part 1

I promised last time to write more about the ethics of taking photographs in difficult situations. I don't know how many of you remember the television comedy series Drop the Dead Donkey which chronicled the workings of a fictional TV news station. The thing I remember most was the reporter who carried a teddy bear with him to the scene of every disaster he attended. Eventually people realised that wherever he went in the world, every news story featured a shot of an abandoned teddy bear and reference to an unseen child who had lost it in the war/earthquake, flood, landslide and so on. The word on everyone's lips at the time was: Outrageous!

I was reminded of this when I was sent to Kuwait to visit the battlefields of the first Gulf War, five years on. I was taken to see an apartment block on the seafront in Kuwait City. Halfway up the building was a gaping hole and a large sofa hung out precariously. A warship had fired a single shell during operations to recapture the city and it had struck the building. I was invited up to take a closer look and stood on a landing between stairs and a jammed lift. At my feet was a pile of rubble and, as I turned, I noticed an abandoned child's dolly in the corner of the landing. I saw a picture opportunity immediately and went and retrieved it. Laying it on the pile of rubble, I took a photograph. The resulting image was disturbing with the decaying doll looking like a ravaged victim of war. Afterwards, I put the doll back where I found it.

I never published the photograph, but an artist did a watercolour painting of it. Even reproduced in another medium, it remained disturbing. I had and have had no qualms about taking the photograph. As an anti-war photograph, it carries the message I intended, but others less scrupulous might have passed it off as authentic .

This photograph reminded me of a difficult journey I made in Croatia during the Balkan Wars. Children from a orphanage that had been shelled and destroyed were relocated to a new orphange on the Croatian coast. I accompanied a newspaper reporter and photographer who were looking to publicise the story. When the children were shown, for the first time, photographs of their former home they cried. The photographer said: " Quick! Show them some more." He was pleased because it made the scene more heart rending . . . Now some might dismiss this as an 'apocryphal' tale, but it wasn't - I was there! I also heard a similar story from another photographer that one of his colleagues was not adverse to poking a finger in the eye of a happy looking child to make it cry and make his photographs more saleable! Now that is even more shocking. As consumers (viewers) of news photographs in the newspapers, I would be interested in hearing your opinions of this.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Getting Involved

I have often heard reporters talk about reporting on disasters and saying: "I don't get involved. I am there to report the story." When I went to work on my first magazine, my fellow feature writer Bill Moore had been, many years before, Deputy Editor of a national Sunday newspaper. He was a brilliant sub-editor and taught me a lot. I can remember him telling me about attending the Aberfan Disaster in Wales in 1966. A coal slag heap collaped and engulfed a school, killing many children. When he and the other national newspaper reporters and photographers arrived at the scene, it was immediately evident that help was needed. According to Bill, a quick discussion among the gathered press led to the decision that a reporter and photographer would cover the story and the material would be pooled [shared]. Everyone else joined in the frantic efforts to try and dig out survivors. I doubt that would happen today.

I was reminded of this many years later when covering a fishing disaster in the south west. A trawler had capsized. There was one survivor and the lifeboat was returning him to port. I joined other journalists waiting on the harbourside, along with the wives of the trawler's crew. No one knew who had survived. You can imagine the howls of grief when the survivor appeared on deck and four wives realised they were now widows. There was no one available to help the survivor ashore, so I stepped forward and helped him to the waiting ambulance. I was pretty shocked by the whole thing and afterwards a female journalist with many years experience said she realised I had missed much of the unfolding story by going to the assistance of the survivor. It was right, what I had done, she said and opened her notebook to share the facts she had gathered with me so I could meet my deadline - a very unusual occurrence when journalists were rivals.

The moral of this tale, if there is one, is that sometimes you just have to get involved . . . Were Bill Moore and his colleagues at Aberfan right in the way they behaved? I'd like to hear what you think?

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Have your Camera to hand at All Times!

Of course, one of the first rules of photojournalism is always having a camera to hand. I did have an excuse on Sunday as I was trying to do my first 10 mile bike ride for many weeks and was flying along the cycle path. I had my cycling camel bak rucksack with a three litre reservoir of water and drinking tube. Inside were a spare inner tube, pump, tyre levers, multi-tool and a few other things. What I didn't have was a camera and, yes, you have guessed it a great photo opportunity arose. Some distance ahead, I saw a mother and daughter with two dogs on leashes. They were misbehaving - the dogs, not the mother and daughter! As I got closer, I realised they were walking two billie goats. No camera, no shot and I was so disappointed. I am sure it would have used by a magazine. Next time, I will have my camera with me.

This episode reminds me of my worst journalistic experience some thirty years ago. I was in a phone box on the harbourside at Brixham in Devon. I was reading my story over to the copy taker at the local paper. When I finished, I turned round and stepped outside. The place was crowded. Someone said to me, "Did you get the photo?" "What of?", I asked. Evidently, an armed stowaway had been disarmed on a tanker moored in Torbay. He had been brought ashore by Pilot Boat surrounded by armed policemen - right next to the phone box. Now, that was a picture that would have sold . . . The moral of the story was: "If you are phoning in copy from a phone box, look over your shoulder occasionally. Oh, and the important story I was phoning over? It was a report on a jumble sale that had raised almost £3. Groan!